Bangladesh has gradually rolled back the lockdown restrictions despite an escalating coronavirus outbreak, allowing garment factories to reopen on a limited scale since Apr 25, subject to their compliance with health and safety guidelines to reduce the risk of contagion among workers.
Nevertheless, the health and hygiene protocols set out by apparel exporters' lobby BGMEA and other owners' associations were not implemented in most of the cases initially.
Apart from healthy workers, even those who had been infected with the novel coronavirus were eager to return to work once the factories began opening in phases.
Many workers travelled hundreds of kilometres to get to their factories while carrying the pathogen with them along the way.
As expected, the risk of spreading the infection increased after the factories reopened, according to workers' rights activists.
“We went through the media reports and found that more than one hundred workers have been infected with COVID-19 until now. But the authorities raised questions on the authenticity of our findings without even going through it. The chances of infection have gone up manifold now that the factories are running again,” Taslima Akhter, president of Shramik Sanghati Andolon, told bdnews24.com.
She pointed to the failure of factories to enforce the safety protocols as infected workers were allowed to stream back into work.
Some of the workers from Savar, Gazipur and other places returned to work even before receiving their COVID-19 test results, according to news reports.
At least 25 percent of the 2,274 members of BGMEA could not reopen their factories due to the lack of work orders, some of its top leaders told bdnews24.com.
The factories that have resumed operations are running with around 60 to 70 percent of their workforce. Many factories fear they will be left without work after mid-June.
BGMEA has formed six teams to ensure that physical distancing and other safety protocols in the reopened factories are being followed, but bdnews24.com could not get the names of the team members despite contacting several spokespersons.
In many places, the factory authorities defied the initial rule to allow only the workers living in nearby neighbourhoods to work and instead called up workers from other districts.
Many of those workers were infected with the coronavirus at the time and their presence at work exposed others to the risk of infection.
MUCH HAS THE VIRUS SPREAD?
Most of the garment factories in the country are situated in Savar, Ashulia, Narayanganj and Gazipur in the Dhaka district. The majority of infected workers that turned up to work at these factories in the last 15 days ignored the hygiene requirements just to keep their jobs.
According to the BGMEA's control room, at least 55 workers in different factories were found to have COVID-19 until May 12. Among them, 43 were men and 12 women.
However, Taslima contends that 96 factory workers were infected with the coronavirus until May 7, with the tally crossing 100 on May 12.
Mahbubur Rahman Ismail, coordinator of the Movement for Garment Workers’ Rights, believes the infection rate among workers shows that the authorities have failed to implement the health and safety protocols in factories, fanning its spread in the process.
A BGMEA report dated May 10 said the authorities visited 49 factories and found that 48 were following the sanitisation rules, while 441 of the total 461 factories inspected were found to be in a satisfactory state.
BGMEA has opened a coronavirus hotline centre in its Uttara office while providing teleservices to workers regarding COVID-19.
It also has a contract with another organisation to extend teleservices on COVID-19 to 100,000 workers.
Furthermore, BGMEA appointed two technicians in its Ashulia Health Centre to collect samples and conduct COVID-19 tests for factory officials, it said on May 9.
However, the sample collection process, which was set to begin from May 13, did not get underway on the scheduled date.
An official involved in the sample collection plans told bdnews24.com that there were no updates on the matter as of May 12. But the authorities are holding discussions to start the process, according to him, reports bdnews24.com.